Speaking at Asia’s main annual defense summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, China’s new defense minister Li Shangfu dashed any hopes of a US-China thaw in the security sphere. Taking a hostile tone, his speech mainly focused on criticizing the US and its presence in the region – without ever mentioning the US by name. Defense ministers and policymakers from across the Indo-Pacific and Europe, including US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, shared the stage with Li, who made his first international public appearance at the conference held on June 2-4.
Washington has recently angled for a partial reset in relations with Beijing, seeking meetings with Chinese officials across policy fields. CIA Director Bill Burns was the highest-ranking US official to visit China since 2021, according to reports, with a secret trip to China last month to meet with counterparts. At the conference, Lloyd Austin gave a relatively toned-down speech. While criticizing China’s aggressive behavior in the region, he emphasized the need for guardrails against conflict and better crisis management mechanisms and communication channels between the countries’ two militaries. Calling out China for suspending military dialogues since August 2022, he spoke of dialogue as a necessity, not a reward.
Most regional countries at the event echoed this message, despite their broad span of priorities – whether the Philippines’ South China Sea dispute or Fiji’s concerns over climate change. All speeches by Indo-Pacific defense ministers expressed concern that a lack of communication and political will could escalate US-China competition, with disastrous consequences for the region and the world. These fears were reinforced by reports of a near-collision between a US and Chinese vessel in the Taiwan Strait after an aggressive maneuver by a Chinese navy ship.
Calls for reopening communication channels between the Chinese and American militaries have fallen on deaf ears in Beijing, however. Li Shangfu declined to meet with Austin on the sidelines of the event, a signal of a stalemate until the US lifts sanctions on China’s defense minister. When asked about restarting communication between the two sides, Li said mutual respect is the prerequisite for dialogue – echoing Beijing’s message that Washington must first change its ways if it wants to stabilize relations with China.
MERICS Analysis: “Li Shangfu’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue was further evidence that China’s post-party congress charm offensive does not extend to the United States,” says Helena Legarda, Lead Analyst at MERICS. “Beijing remains focused on its competition with Washington and seems willing to hold military dialogue and communication hostage as a point of leverage.”
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